Being a Parent is JUST like Being an Olympic Athlete!
With the 2018 Winter Olympic Games drawing to a close, I find myself transported back to my parents’ living room in Western Pennsylvania, sitting cross-legged on the pea green carpeting, jockeying with my older sister for a spot with optimal viewing comfort. In those days, like every other self-respecting 80s pre-teen, I was enchanted by the figure skaters. Although I didn’t even own a pair of skates at the time, I longed to take to the ice myself, speeding across the smooth expanse, nailing jump after jump to the grandeur of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror,” against the backdrop of the cheering crowd. And while I never did perfect that triple toe loop, I have some fantastic news for my eight-year-old self: I’m actually living the Olympic dream right now…as a parent! That’s right young Megan, in many ways, being a parent is JUST like being an Olympic athlete.
1. Both jobs are physically demanding.
Elite athletes at the top of their game engage in what often amounts to a full-time job’s worth of physical preparation for the big event. Some Olympians report training six days a week with an emphasis on endurance, strength, agility, and flexibility. In short, their bodies take a beating…just like parent! As a firm believer in early, secure attachment , and because I am fortunate enough to work part-time from home, I spend a lot of time with my 16-month-old son. I mean A LOT. I sometimes note that no male, including my spouse, has ever been as “into” me as my son is. My heart soars at our close bond, and at the same time my body is under stress I wasn’t quite prepared for. Hanging with a toddler is seriously a contact sport. The erratic, unpredictable nature of my new walker’s patterns of movement can best be likened to that of a bowling ball on a bungee cord. His head is as hard as a marble slab and it barrels toward my unsuspecting form at all hours of the day and night travelling at velocities you wouldn’t believe. Toddler wrangling requires dexterity, stamina, and hutzpah, just like Olympic training! I haven’t been this bruised since the fourth grade.
One glaring difference between this particular parent and Olympic athletes is that the latter are in the best shape of their lives. I, on the other hand, am not. I happen to know a few badass runner moms and Crossfit moms and yogini moms, but I have to say that I’m arguably in the worst shape of my life. Nursing my son is quite literally my only cardio. Thanks be to the Goddess that breastfeeding burns extra calories (among the many, many other amazing, astounding, and magical things it does if you’re able to make a go of it). And since my son is a toddler, the nursing takes on something of a Cirque De Soliel motif, with arms and legs flailing in sweeping gestures and acrobatics (all him…not me). The thought of spending the tiny remnants of free time I can stitch together after meeting my parenting, work, and domestic responsibilities doing anything that requires lacing athletic shoes makes me want to do a spit-take of my morning half-caffe (only half the caffe because caffeine is the enemy of sleep, and my toddler thinks sleep is for wussies).
2. Pretty much everyone feels compelled to weigh in on our performance.
Few things are as hilarious to me as sitting with a bunch of out of shape Midwesterners as they critique the output of highly trained, machine-like athletes. There’s nothing quite like watching your asthmatic cousin Saul assert with unwavering certainty that he could have made that shot/landed that jump/crossed that finish line better than the mass of pure talent and muscle competing in the actual sporting event taking place. Some athletes (often female) get the added privilege of inclusion in the pop culture universe, as commentators weigh in on their wardrobe choices, beauty regimes , and countless other things having nothing to do with these remarkable athletes’ personal power and strength.
I can relate. Remember when I mentioned that my son thinks sleep is for wussies? Our boy started cutting his first teeth at three months (not a type-o!) and ever since that time he’s been a wakeful little guy. Since sleep training is not my jam (I swear there really ARE other valid alternatives for exhausted parents, like this , this, and this), our family landed on co-sleeping as way to maximize sleep and attachment for all. If you’re keeping score that makes me an extended breastfeeding, non-exercising, co-sleeping, part-time working mom. Let’s just say I have gotten side-eye from all corners of the room. I’m beginning to believe that the true super power of parenthood is becoming immune to criticism and off-hand suggestions. Just like an Olympic athlete I have to shake off doubt and head onto the playing field to compete another day! Luckily my parenting choices aren’t televised or reported on by the news media.
3. We’re all obsessed with naps.
Many elite athletes swear by the miraculous power of naps to rebuild tired muscles and replenish energy stores. So do parents! Daytime napping is something my son and I have in common. It is the one sleep-related area where he will deign to “act his age.” He routinely sleeps 90-120 minutes daily (my fingers tremble as I type, knowing that putting this fact in black and white will all but ensure the end of this wonderful thing), and I try to nap as often as I can. The famous advice to “sleep when the baby sleeps” is one of the few bits of never ending unsolicited advice that I tend to agree with. I also really dig, and totally adhere to, another related bit of wisdom: clean when the baby cleans. Yes!
4. Both jobs require lots of work for very little pay and recognition
Unlike athletes in some other countries who receive federal funding to train for their sports, US Olympians are still mostly amateur. While the superstars among them can earn huge sums of cash from endorsements or sponsorships, many US athletes hold down jobs to pay for their livelihoods AND their training expenses. Further, unless they’re one of said superstars, they’re probably not getting much in the way of acknowledgment or recognition for their hard work and sacrifice.
In a similar fashion, unlike parents in some other countries who receive federal funding to train for THEIR sport (i.e., rearing the next generation of humans), US parents are pretty much on their own. Although we espouse family-friendly values as paramount at every turn, the US lags behind other industrialized nations in providing incentives that would in any way communicate to parents that the work of raising new citizens is something worthy of even the slightest consideration. Our federal and workplace policies clearly reflect our culture’s blatant lack of respect for the work of nurturers. In addition, one particular point bears repeating over and over and over: low-income women and women of color often suffer most acutely from our nation’s backward policies.
5. Both gigs are time-limited.
A human body has a limited amount of time to reach and capitalize on peak physical performance. One study showed the peak age for Olympic performance in many events to be around 26 years of age. For some sports, like gymnastics, competitors routinely excel at ages as young as 14 and 15. Basically, the clock is ticking on your Olympic ambitions if you haven’t started putting your heart into it by your teens. And then, once you’ve trained, you’re likely to be out of the game by 30. Note to eight-year-old me: you were already a slacker!
The parent timeline is also a relatively short one. While my son will probably be under my roof for at least the next 17 years, it is unlikely that he will always need me in the gut-wrenching, all-encompassing, psyche-enveloping way that he does now. Anyone who knows a toddler can probably conjure the image of the Greek tragedy that is my son when he is told that Mommy needs two minutes alone (yeah, right) to use the toilet. Developmental psychologists suggest that around the age of three many children experience a natural surge of blossoming independence. It has been said that one of the greatest challenges of motherhood is the process of graciously and whole-heartedly surrendering some of your own desires for a short time, and then knowing when and how to reintroduce personal interests and pursuits into your life as your child’s needs become less intense. Personally, I’m viewing my child’s 0-3 years as my own Elite Athlete Training Sabbatical (minus any form of actual physical exercise), or EATS (and yes I DO eat my feelings quite often, thank you very much. Any parent who says otherwise is LYING). During these years of holding space for a little soul with lots of intense needs calls for heaps of self-love and compassion. I am giving myself a gold medal in this event, dammit!
So there you have it, totally solid evidence that parenting is not unlike being among the greatest athletes in the world. Congratulation to all the competitors in PyeongChang this year. You are amazing! And to all you parents out there training in your own ways, don’t forget to pat yourselves on the back every once in a while. You’re truly doing sacred work, and I think we all deserve at least a bronze!